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Abu Zubaydah, Torture and Conflicts of Interest

Marcy Wheeler has a typically excellent post going through a remarkable annex to the 2004 CIA inspector general’s torture report: the psychological profile

Luke Evans
Last updated: Jul 31, 2020 | Aug 26, 2009

Marcy Wheeler has a typically excellent post going through a remarkable annex to the 2004 CIA inspector general’s torture report: the psychological profile prepared (probably by former SERE psychologist James Mitchell) of Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee to be subjected to what would become the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program. (As Marcy was the first to report, this meant, among other things, that he was waterboarded 83 times.) The report was eventually sent to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel when the CIA sought its imprimatur, in the summer of 2002, to subject him to the abuse. And an anti-torture psychologist considers it borderline malpractice.

The profile makes reference to a number of personality factors. First, not only is Abu Zubaydah a senior member of al-Qaeda, but he’s “a highly self-directed individual who prizes his independence,” possessing “narcissistic features” and who “wrestles with issues regarding the killing of civilians.” A “private person,” Abu Zubaydah is said to be “skeptical of others’ intentions and alert for ulterior motives.” He possesses an eschatological view of the inevitable victory of al-Qaeda, which makes him determined “to delay, mislead and lie to protect what is most critical to the success of his cause.” And he’s “remarkably resilient and confident to overcome adversity.”

All of these things taken together indicate a brief for torturing Abu Zubaydah, said Steven Reisner, a psychological ethics adviser to Physicians for Human Rights, and not an impartial psychological profile. “If you were trying to experiment [with torture], you would write a psychological report just like this,” he said, as it emphasizes Abu Zubaydah’s alleged resilience, facility with resistance, and knowledge of al-Qaeda’s operations. Indeed, there’s a reference in the report to a presumption that Abu Zubaydah is “probably well-versed regarding al-Qa’ida’s captivity and resistance training.” In late 2001, as the CIA inspector general’s report reminds (and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2008 report has already disclosed), CIA contracted with an “independent contractor psychologist” with experience in the SERE program to describe precisely that captivity and resistance training”; that psychologist, James Mitchell, took direct part in Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation.

All this represents an often-overlooked conflict of interest, Reisner said: “They’re providing research that justifies the use of the techniques [advocated] and they’re being paid for it. It’s opportunism.” It’s not known how much Mitchell and his colleague, Bruce Jessen, ultimately benefited from the CIA, but in 2002 the two started a company that made “millions of dollars selling interrogation and training services to the C.I.A.,” according to a recent New York Times profile.

There is no evident indication from the 2004 CIA inspector general’s report that John Helgerson, the former inspector general who conducted the review, factored in the conflict of interest into his assessment. It’s possible that such treatment occurred in the still-classified parts of the review.

Update: This post has been corrected to fix the misspelling of Steve Reisner’s name, for which I am very sorry.

Luke Evans | My name is Luke Evans, and I work as a Web Developer. I am a professional coder and programmer who enjoys contributing to the exciting technical advancements. In 2016, I received a Bachelor's Degree in Software Development from California Institute of Technology. For my outstanding academic performance and leadership abilities while in school, I received the Edmund Gains Award in 2015.


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